“I’ll screw your mother, Taliban,” jeers a surly 17-year-old through straggly pink ombré highlights to a brown-skinned catcaller in Stephan Lacant’s provocative and propulsive sophomore feature “Strange Daughter.” It might seem a long way from there — plus jibes about headscarves and bomb-making — to the sight of the same young woman piously wrapping a hijab around her head and murmuring passages from the Koran, but it’s a journey Lacant’s film condenses into a few short, tumultuous months, to the benefit of its dramatics, but perhaps to the detriment of strictest credibility. But then maybe it’s too much to ask that this or any film fully explicate the infinitely private mystery that is a person’s relationship to faith.
Lacant’s fine debut, “Free Fall,” detailed the love affair between two gay policemen, and as in that film, “Strange Daughter” deals in an unlikely relationship that arises between a mismatched duo who each have a lot to lose by acknowledging their attraction. This time, however, the stakes feel even higher, and are given an added boost by the clever way Lacant and co-writer Karsten Dahlem run some of the setup’s oppositions against the usual grain.
So, while we’ve more often seen stories of young Muslim women exploring the world outside their religion through a relationship with a non-Muslim, here that dynamic is reversed. And here it is the Muslim protagonist Farid (the soulfully handsome Hassan Akkouch) who is the professional, white-collar worker, while the white Lena (Elisa Schlott) works a menial cleaning job, first to finance her mindless club-night lifestyle, but soon to provide the household with an income at all, when her frazzled single mother Hannah (Heike Makatsch) is dismissed from hers for refusing to blow her boss and for totaling his car.
An assiduous trainee in the office Lena cleans at night, Farid is always the last to leave. That leads to a prickly acquaintance which turns callously sexual one night. But Farid, an observant Muslim and a decent guy (the only one of those we’ll meet) actually likes Lena — a great deal more than she seems to like herself — and despite her protestations that they “can’t be together” in the public sense, their relationship deepens. Short though the cinematic tradition of inter-ethnic romances may be, there is a much longer one of watching attractive young people fall in love on screen, and Lacant gives us plenty of that, up to and including some fairly graphic sex scenes, one of which reveals the hitherto under-exploited sexy potential of a deserted late-night cubicle farm. In fact, the film’s charming first third or so may actually be its most successful, with the sparky chemistry between the actors making us invest in their uncertain future together.
However, Lacant does not want to make “just” a romance, and soon complications and rather schematic subplots appear. Lena discovers she is pregnant; Farid’s family, including his depressive, alcoholic father and more militantly Muslim younger brother cannot accept her; Hannah can’t get unemployment support without a particular form from her sleazy ex-boss; and Mirko, the lonely little boy next door for whom Lena is a safe haven from his own abusive father, is on the verge of suicide. All of these factors have the effect of making Lena decide to convert to Islam, first as simply going through the motions so that she and Farid can marry, but soon it appears her conversion is, for a time at least, sincere.
And this is perhaps the one contortion that neither the screenplay nor the otherwise excellent Schlott can quite sell. Perhaps inevitably given Lacant’s secular German point of view, Lena becomes a bit of mystery to us as soon as she decides to abandon her trashy, foulmouthed persona and to adopt the customs, clothing and deportment of a Muslim woman, and this is exactly the moment that her psychology is of most crucial import. While, however reluctantly, we’ve been marching lock-step with her until then, the point of view swivels and suddenly we’re excluded from her inner processes at exactly the juncture when they would have been most enlightening.
Nonetheless, the film is so smoothly put together that it remains compelling even when the initial momentum has started to flag. Michael Kotschi’s unshowy cinematography, much of it taking place at night or in low-contrast, gray-skied half-light, is fluid and calm. And in particular, the clever score by duo Dürbeck & Dohmen, which layers Middle Eastern elements over the expected electro drones, subtly makes literal the ebb and flow of culture clash and cultural synthesis that is at the film’s heart. Very effective as a portrait of a tender and precious connection between two radically different people, it’s a little less so as an investigation of the specific circumstances that might lead a disaffected young woman to consider religious conversion, but “Strange Daughter” is still a valiant attempt to ask one of our age’s key questions: Can you love the believer without loving their belief?